Sunday, November 8, 2009

Exploration and the death of the Hexmap

Dungeons & Dragons is a game of exploration. Or it was a game of exploration, before the railways began offering guided tours. It used to be that you would plunge into a howling wilderness, blindly crawling through the hexes in search of your goals. Nowadays you follow the trail of macguffins from setpiece to setpiece.

As an aside, I love it when I'm playing a computer/console RPG and I end up totally outflanking the plotline via an open world and my own curiosity. Kill the bad guy? I already iced the bastard when I found a sinister castle in the woods and slew him an account of his sinister vibes and possible treasure.

That's not going to happen in a "contemporary" adventure. You won't need to load up the pack mules with food, water and blank hex-parchments in order to find the Lost Temple of the Toad-Wizard, you just need to pass a skill challenge.

One of my favorites aspects of old adventure fiction is the "expedition" aspect. The equipment inventory in Journey to the Center of the Earth. The survival plans of a band of castaway shipwreck survivors. The battle with a hostile alien wilderness in The Walls of Eryx. The man versus mountain battle to the summit of Stardock.

It makes the Boy Scout in my blood howl for adventure. It makes me want to load a backpack with rope, rations, canteens, maps and tools and strike out into the forests seeking ruins.

Oldschool wilderness adventuring was a gamble. You hope you find something worthwhile before nature and wandering monsters takes too dear a toll. You seek out rumors, maps and guides if you're smart. But even then it's not a sure thing. You could always get hopelessly lost and stumble into the lair of an ancient red dragon.

And I'm fine with that, a reward is worthless without risk.

I was not happy when "the hobby" started ditching hexmaps. Sure "real maps" are prettier and "more realistic." But I don't need to be fucking around with a ruler and a map to calculate how far the party travels in a day.

Hexmaps are excellent. They abstract distance and terrain into manageable chunks without breaking the illusion. And they facilitate capital-A Adventure. Those hexes beg to be filled with ruins, lairs and general strangeness. They encourage the DM to place awesome eastern egss in random corners of the wilderness. They allow the party the freedom to do what they want instead of helping the DM with a story.

Another computer/console games aside, I can't play video games that aren't "open world." Bioshock is beautiful and fun, but I throw up in my mouth when confronted with the railroad. I'm a free man goddammit, I seek adventure on my own damn terms. And the open world makes me want to explore.

Hexmaps were thrown out by the industry in order to facilitate the "fantasy pornography" of artistic, beautiful maps. Maps that serve as a mere backdrop for the adventure instead of being a crucial part of adventure. Or even the adventure itself.

Hexmaps were thrown away as they were rendered useless by the setpiece railroads. Entitled heroes with a destiny to save the world shouldn't waste their time getting lost in the swamp and contacting malaria. Or die of dehydration in the desert.


  1. I am not sure if so many people actually do want freedom - open world gaming has always been an option independent of the rules, and we did it without explicit instructions with 2nd edition AD&D. It was the natural thing to do with a "game where you can do anything", just like killing the occasional other party member or just wrecking stuff.

    Today, the influences are different: computer games have precisely designed and defined quests; as I have read, MMORPGs, which were initially all about creating your own entertainment in a sandbox (Ultima Online etc.), experienced the greatest surge of popularity when they went from openness to carefully measured and engineered raid opportunities and finely balanced quests. For most players, that appears to be a superior product.

    You correctly note that Bioshock is highly constrained: in a way, so were the two System Shock games, since you had "chokepoints" to get through; nevertheless, in between, you could set priorities, or just roam around to discover things and test your current character's abilities. System Shock 1 was a low seller, System Shock 2 a modest success, while Bioshock sold like hotcakes and got 95+ reviews almost everywhere (except the community, the hotbed of "immersive sim" fans, where it is typically looked down upon as an inferior sequel).

    But wasn't the GDQ series or A1-4 a similarly superior product over the relative freedom of B2 and the complete freedom of City State and the Wilderlands? It may turn out that most people just don't want that from their entertainment. They don't want to be so active - sure, some interactivity is nice, but don't let that really go off the rails and ruin the experience.

    Maybe the rules have simply accommodated a preference that has always been dominant?

  2. As someone who has derived considerable enjoyment from your Iridium plateau descriptions I am very much in favour of the hexmap approach. There's no reason why they can't co-exist with pretty maps. Mediaeval and ancient cartography was fairly symbolic really, or fairly shoddy. I say give the players something pretty but useless and let them fall afoul of the giant mutant Dimetrodon.

  3. Melan: "I am not sure if so many people actually do want freedom," true, and the evolutions of MMORPG away from Ultima Online shows the market pressure.

    Bioshock pales in comparison to System Shock 1!

    A would say GDQ and A1-4 and generally different but equal to the City State and the Wilderlands, although one may get far more long-term utility out of the Judges Guild products.

    Definitely the rules are accommodating a dominant preference, but generally speaking, dominant preferences are not relevant to my interests and hobbies. It's not that I have better taste, but that I'm a "weirdo."

    Thomas: Of course there's no reason a map can't be beautiful as well as hexed, the Greyhawk boxed set maps by Darlene as well as the color Wilderlands Southern Reaches map by that otherwise horrible Castles & Crusades artist are perfect examples!

    It just seems like at some point TSR ditched hexmaps in favor of a more mature presentation?

  4. Why not have both?

    Provide the players with an attractive "real" map (which can be as geographically realistic or unrealistic as you like), but which looks like an actual MAP. But the GM has a hex map that has the territory broken down accordingly.

    Then, when you want players to tell you where they want to go, you can have all your sandbox-y fun, without the need for giving the players what are typically pretty ugly looking maps.

  5. @Blair Definitely the rules are accommodating a dominant preference, but generally speaking, dominant preferences are not relevant to my interests and hobbies.

    I would agree with "not relevant to my interests" except my interests encompass playing with others. And unfortunately, the majority of others, as Melan suggested and I have experienced, do not want to be active. They sit dumbfounded waiting for the glowing sign "plot this way".

  6. @ Badelaire: I've already been doing exactly that :)

    @ Norman: If you are sincere, passionate and proactive they will come...